There Is a Better Way: How the Norwegian Tragedy Forces Us to Reexamine Our Response to 9/11

Little seems closer to the core of humanity than the mourning of lost ones. The Neanderthals buried their dead and research shows that even the earliest humans, the Cro-Magnon, carried out elaborate burials tens of thousands of years ago. When death occurs, the family draws together in mourning.



So does the national family when tragedy hits. But when mourning becomes a national enterprise it slips from the private realm to the realm of politics. Tom Engelhardt writes:

"This country has become dependent on the dead of 9/11 -- who have no way of defending themselves against how they have been used -- as an all-purpose explanation for our own goodness and the horrors we’ve visited on others, for the many towers-worth of dead in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere whose blood is on our hands."

Amidst the mourning of 9/11 victims the more than 137,000 civilians estimated to have died violently in the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are invisible. Through forces of inclusion and exclusion our mourning defines who were real victims of the attack and ultimately which lives we grieve.


Surely, the families of the 9/11 victims deserve to mourn their losses, but when mourning becomes a public spectacle it holds the potential to serve, as Engelhardt puts it, as “a blank check for the American war state, funding an endless trip to hell."


It does not have to be so.


Norway in Grief


On July 22 the Norwegian people faced tragedy. A bomb exploded outside of the executive government quarter in Oslo, killing eight and less than two hours later a second attack was launched on the Island of Utøya. Anders Breivik,32,  dressed as a police officer, gained access to the island where the youth division of the Norwegian Labor Party (AP) was hosting their annual summer camp. He opened fire and coldbloodedly mowed down 69 young Norwegians as they ran to him for help.


The Norwegian tragedy is not a new 9/11. It’s a different country and a different context. It serves in its own right. But the outcome has parallels: A nation in grief. Like Americans, the Norwegian people have been confronted with their helplessness in the face of absolute evil, the consequences being fear and a new sense of vulnerability. But the sentiments of mourning and grief, and its spillover to the political realm, travels along different lines.


The Stoltenberg Doctrine


Following 9/11 Bush beat the war drum. Nine days after the attack he declared: “Tonight, we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”


Norway’s prime minister Jan Stoltenberg now shares the same destiny as Bush, in leading the nation through a terror attack. He too gathers the nation to defend freedom. But the musical backdrop of his response does not sound with the drums of war. Nordahl Grieg's hymn to pacifism has accompanied almost every speech Stoltenberg has given since July 22. The lyrics urge a stop to death and killing through openness and warmth: “This is your shield against violence, this is your sword: Faith in human life, faith in human value.”


The Bush doctrine, coded in Christian rhetoric, launched a fight for democracy and freedom and sent the country on the march to war. Stoltenberg has not altered his response to a doctrine (although it deserves it) nor has he called upon Christianity, although he embraces the Christian belief of turning the other cheek. In the immediate aftermath he told the Norwegian people:

”It has been said: ’An eye for an eye.’ But I tell you, do not fight those who will do you evil… Evil can kill a person, but it can never defeat a people.... This is a march for community, a march for democracy, and a march towards tolerance.”

The two leaders call upon the same values of openness and freedom, but where the Bush doctrine launched the march of armed soldiers, the Stoltenberg doctrine calls for a march of peaceful civilians armed with torches to light up the dark. One may ask what means best serves the ends?


King calls for freedom in the face of fear


The Department of Homeland Security, a vast new bureaucracy with many new rules and laws threatening numerous civil liberties and rights, grew out of 9/11. In the light of tragedy the quest for security seems natural. But Norway takes steps to prevent national mourning to feed mass paranoia. Stoltenberg has explicitly stated that the attack will not be used as justification for heightened surveillance and overriding of civil rights.


It still remains to be seen how the tragedy will affect Norway in the long run, but signs are positive.


The first memorial took place at the university square in the heart of Oslo less than 40 hours after the attack. Only a symbolic fence divided the crowd of people from the royal family and the Norwegian parliament taking part in the ceremony. Stoltenberg, who was a specific target for assassination during the attack, was walking unprotected among the people. Only a few police officers were to be seen.


The Norwegian king announced in his speech, ”The current situation calls upon us to show that freedom is more important than fear."

Oslo University law professor Thomas Mathiesen remarks that there has been no significant quest for more surveillance or severe penalties among the public. “I believe the reason is that we have a set of fundamental values like solidarity, community, and openness, and they surface in this kind of situations. We know that all the talk of revenge and severe punishment only makes things worse by intensifying the conflict.”


One could argue that those same values are at the core of the American nation, but rather than surfacing they have been suppressed over the past decade.


Breivik: A villain turned upside down


It seems fair to point out, as a major difference between July 22 and 9/11, that the Norwegian assassin is homemade. Blond Anders Breivik defies the stereotypical terrorist who, after 9/11, has come to be synonymous with the bearded Islamist. The Norwegian scenario does not easily fit the hero-villain narrative of good and evil.


Thomas Hylland-Eriksen, a professor in social anthropology, says: “In a way it is more difficult to come to terms with the fact that the man who cold-bloodedly killed nearly a hundred people is a decent-looking young man from the western part of Oslo and not a bearded fanatic from a foreign country. We produced the poison ourselves.”


In trial, Breivik called his acts “cruel but necessary.” He spent nine years plotting the attack on AP, which he blamed for “Ideological deconstruction of Norwegian culture and mass importation of Muslims.” Breivik identifies himself with the radical right that has gained momentum in Northern Europe the past decade.


Norwegian author Jostein Garder argues that Breivik is a symptom of a tendency rather than a lonely psycho. Garder says, “He did not grow out of a vacuum. He is not a lunatic talking incoherent nonsense. He is the product of a polarized public debate about Islamization.”


The irony of correlation


The features of an ironic correlation between 9/11 and July 22 begin to take shape. Noam Chomsky recently argued that Osama bin Laden could not have wished for a better ally than the US. The crackdown on Muslims at home and overseas coded with hateful rhetoric has fueled a radicalization bin Laden could never have generated single-handedly.


But not even in his wildest dreams could bin Laden have imagined that the same polarizing debate would cause a similar radicalization at the other end of the spectrum -- a homemade slaughter of hundreds of young people with aspirations for a better future in the Norwegian sun.


The wounds of Norway are still fresh and it remains to be seen what form the scars will take. But as Norwegians embark on a march to embrace tolerance, the healing process seems promising. Prime Minister Stoltenberg is determined not make the victims a hostage of political rhetoric. In Norwegian, the name Stoltenberg translates to "he who travels with pride." So far, the Norwegian family can be proud of their response in the face of tragedy.

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